Biletambe Malango stands at a park near her home in Erie on June 19, 2020.
Ed Mahon / PA Post
Biletambe Malango stands at a park near her home in Erie on June 19, 2020.
Ed Mahon / PA Post
Biletambe Malango felt like a nowhere person.
Her parents met in a refugee camp. They had each fled the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In that refugee camp in Tanzania, as they told her years later, they fell in love. They had no idea when or if a country would take them in permanently. They got married and started a family.
Biletambe was their first child, born as a refugee in 2000. She spent the first nine years of her life moving from refugee camp to refugee camp.
The second camp was the worst. A caged fence surrounded it, and it seemed like all they had to eat was peas and fufu, a type of bread. At another camp, she heard about neighbors killing themselves when they received notice that countries rejected them.
When her own family received their letter that would tell them whether the United States would accept them, they were so scared that they waited two days to open it.
Eventually, they turned to a neighbor, a man from Kenya, to help them translate it. He told them they were going to the United States — they had been accepted.
“It was the happiest moment ever,” Malango said. “I mean, we don’t know where we’re going. But we know it’s going to be better.”
Where she ended up going was Erie. She’s lived in the northwestern Pennsylvania city for more than 10 years.
She’s done well. Now, she’s studying public service and global affairs at Gannon University. If you visit downtown Erie, you’ll see her face on a big banner, encouraging people to participate in the U.S. Census.
“Erie is home,” Malango said, speaking at a park near her family’s house. “…I feel like I started with it, and I want to finish with it.”
But stories like hers are becoming less common in Erie.
The city — facing decades of population loss following a collapse in manufacturing jobs — welcomed refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bhutan and a host of other countries.
That mattered for Erie’s economy.
“Having new Americans and refugees come in to supplant the declining population is actually critical to have success,” said James Grunke, president and CEO of the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership.
But the number of new refugee arrivals dropped by more than 80 percent, according to data tracked by the state’s Refugee Resettlement Program. The number of new arrivals fell from nearly 800 a year during President Barack Obama’s administration to less than 150 under President Donald Trump.
In defending nationwide decreases to refugee resettlement, Trump — who won Erie County in 2016, but lost the city — and his administration have said the country’s immigration system is already overburdened. And Trump said it’s better and less expensive for the United States to keep refugees closer to their home country. It’s one of many immigration restrictions supported by a president who once referred to Haiti, El Salvador and African nations as “shithole countries”’ during a bipartisan meeting with lawmakers.
The drop in refugee resettlement has a broad effect in Erie. The low numbers led Catholic Charities of Erie to stop resettling refugees, and nonprofit leaders worry about long-term harm to the system. Some plastic manufacturers say they’re having trouble filling shifts.
City leaders are warning that if the U.S. Census workers count fewer than 100,000 people in the city, Erie won’t be eligible for a broad variety of federal grant money. And, more broadly, some people here worry that losing refugees will make Erie a less interesting place to live.
“A lot of other families and other new families considering Erie as a place to live like that fact that there’s an Iraqi restaurant, and a couple Syrian restaurants, and a Bhutanese restaurant, and a Congolese-Sudanese grocery store,” said Seph Kumer, director of community engagement for First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant in Erie.
Here’s a look at three ways refugees changed Erie — and what it means to see such a big drop in new arrivals.
Many refugees end up working at jobs that don’t require a lot of specific skills or training, such as at plastic manufacturers.
Chris Yochim, vice president of manufacturing at Erie Molded Plastics, said he’s noticed the decline in new arrivals.
“It’s been a huge hit to not have the refugee population,” Yochim said.
The company, which makes lids for mayonnaise jars, peanut jars and a variety of snack food, has worked with a program run by the Benedictine Sisters of Erie to hire refugees.
Several years ago, the company had high turnover on its second shift. Yochim said most people didn’t last two weeks. But hiring refugees “quickly changed one of our worst performing shifts into one of our best performing shifts,” he said.
Yochim acknowledges that there are reasons people don’t want to work as line operators.
The pay is above minimum wage, but not great: $10.50 an hour now. The work, he said, is monotonous. But he tells employees they’ll receive health benefits, 40 hours a week of work, with an opportunity for overtime, and other benefits. And he said there’s an opportunity to advance in the company.
The business averages about 24 line operators — right now a little over a half a dozen of them are refugees, he said. He would like to hire more. When people don’t show up or positions aren’t filled, the company has to shut machines down.
“The issue we’re having now is that it’s pushing us into working more weekends. It’s pushing us to have late orders,” Yochim said.
Paul Jericho has worked with refugees in Erie for more than 30 years — everything from helping them file their tax returns to teaching them to play Blackjack so they could work as a card dealer at Presque Isle Downs & Casino.
Jericho, who recently retired from the Multicultural Community Resource Center in Erie, said he hears from other companies looking to hire refugees.
“We can’t fulfill their needs,” Jericho said.
He also hears from another group: Landlords, looking for people to rent to. That’s partially because Erie’s low cost of living means refugees can often buy homes within three to five years of arriving in the country, so there’s a turnover in apartments, Jericho said.
To pick up groceries and other supplies for Sham Market, Bassam Dabbah usually drives to Detroit once a week, leaving at 3 a.m.
It’s about a ten-hour drive, round trip, which he does in a day. But it’s worth it, he says, because he’s serving people who find what they need at his store.
One of the most popular foods there is makdous — eggplants stuffed with walnuts and red pepper, placed in a large jar with salt and olive oil. It’s what he recommends to newcomers.
Dabbah’s road to the United States began when he traveled from Syria to Jordan to work at a hotel there. He met an Israeli woman. They fell in love and decided to marry. Even though their home countries have been in conflict for decades, it felt like the right decision.
“When it come(s) to my life, it’s my own,” he said. “…I’m not doing anything wrong. I will go ahead and do it no matter what. I will fight for it.”
He came to Erie as a refugee in December 2009. He remembers how the snow made the ground look so white from the airplane window, and he remembers how small the city seemed. He was used to living in bigger cities: Damascus in Syria and Amman in Jordan.
Over the years, he tried relocating to other cities, including Chicago. But he always came back to Erie.
“I love it. I love it,” he said. “…There is secret here.”
Dabbah said fellow refugees from the Middle East urged him to open the market. When he opened the shop, he thought more refugees from the Middle East would arrive in Erie
“Then all of the sudden, it’s shut down,” Dabbah said. “Really, like what we expect doesn’t match.”
He described the day-to-day operations as “not really bad” but not good either. He thinks the market will be fine for one more year without more people coming into the community. After that, he’s not sure.
Sham Market is one of dozens of businesses that refugees have started in Erie.
A list of such businesses from the group Erie Arts & Culture lists trucking companies, a tool and machine molding business, construction contractors, restaurants, markets and more.
Kelly Armor, who works with refugees as the folk art director for Erie Arts & Culture, said refugees have opened up businesses in many of the area’s small, previously vacant storefronts.
“They’re able to rent a place affordably and breathe new life into these storefronts,” she said.
Until recently, two agencies in Erie resettled refugees, helping them transition during the first few months in a new country.
But Catholic Charities Counseling and Adoption Services of Erie is on “a temporary pause,” said Joe Haas, the organization’s CEO. At least, he hopes it’s temporary.
The pause came after the U.S. State Department told the country’s nine major refugee agencies to shut down offices that resettled fewer than 100 people a year.
In Erie, that meant Catholic Charities cut its refugee program from 7½ full-time employees to two. The remaining ones are still helping with long-term refugee resettlement for refugees already here or resettled by another agency.
Haas worries that, long-term, the refugee system in Erie could suffer significant damage. That’s because to resettle refugees, an area needs relationships with employers, landlords, interpreters, educators and many others.
“The concern is that all the bridges and roadways of refugee resettlement are being blown up to try and destroy the refugee resettlement system that was in place in the United States,” Haas said. “Whether that happens or not, only time will tell.”
The Erie field office for the U.S. The Committee of Refugees and Immigrants still resettles refugees.
The organization’s executive director, Dylanna Grasinger, said the group has found other sources of funding to make up for the drop in refugee resettlement revenue. But she said that the long-term decline in refugee resettlement will make it harder for Erie to build.
Erie city officials can’t control how many refugees the United States lets in each year. But, right now, they are putting a lot of resources into making sure refugees and other people from historically undercounted groups are counted in the census.
The city estimates it will lose out on $2,100 per year for every resident it doesn’t count. Plus, Renée Lamis, the mayor’s chief of staff, said whether it falls below 100,000 or not will impact the categories it falls into for grant programs.
In 2010, the U.S. Census determined 101,786 people lived in the city. Estimates from 2019 put that figure at 95,508.
Earlier this year, the city launched a “Can We Count on You?” campaign featuring a video where people asked that question in their native languages. Biletambe Malango was one of the Erie residents in the video, asking the question in Swahili.
Malango spent part of her summer researching the decline in refugee resettlement in Erie. She feels bad for those who haven’t made it over.
“There are people who need us out there. They’re suffering. They are in pain,” Malango said. “They are in the middle of war. And we could be — or we are their only hope. So it’s just sad that we can’t be there for them.”
She understands why the United States would limit refugees. Her father always tells her, you have to take the stick out of your own eye before you can take it out of someone else’s. Still, she also thinks refugees are helping rebuild Erie.
“I think they put hope on the city,” she said.
Ed Mahon can be reached at 717-421-2518 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ed Mahon produced this story as part of the America Amplified initiative using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism. America Amplified is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. PA Post is part of the America Amplified network.
Ed made two trips to Erie: One in late June and another in late July. The goal of the first trip was to meet as many people as possible at community events, out in public, and in prescheduled interviews. After that trip, he decided to focus on the issue of refugee resettlement and Erie’s overall declining population. Both issues came up in many interviews. Ed’s wife and their two young children accompanied him on his July trip, which was a combination of work and vacation.
In advance of both trips, he interviewed several people in the community over Zoom. In most interviews, he asked the America Amplified throughline questions, including want concerns people most about their community or country in the coming year and what do you want people to understand about your community. Ed also researched an oral history project at Gannon University and spoke with Carolyn Baugh, the program’s director and an associate professor at the university. Biletambe Malango participated in that project, and that is how Ed connected with her.
Q: What did the people you talked to say about the experience of being interviewed for public radio?
I didn’t receive much feedback during the process. But many people seemed very excited to talk about Erie, and people appreciated that a reporter made the five-hour drive from Harrisburg to Erie.
For Biletambe, talking about her experience in refugee camps was emotional — she apologized for crying. My interview in June, she said, was only the second time she talked about it the experience in about 10 years.
The other time was when she participated in the oral history project. She said that the oral history project was good for her. For a while before participating in the oral history project, she had tried to put that experience behind her.
“At first I was like, ‘OK, I’m a refugee, but I don’t care about that no more. You know, I’m an American now,’ ” Biletambe recalled thinking. But telling her story through the project gave her a new perspective on how refugees are treated and on how that experience will always be a part of her.
Q: What surprised you about this type of community engagement?
The oral history project was a really valuable resource. I’d love to spend more time listening to those stories, which are available online. Also, I knew I would need to rely on Zoom / phone interviews in advance of my Erie trips, but I was pleasantly surprised about how valuable they were to giving me useful leads for story angles and people to connect with.
Q: What lessons do you have for others who want to do the same?
This might be obvious, but the more research you can do before the trip the better. I didn’t learn about Erie Molded Plastics and its relationship to refugees until after my second trip to Erie. It would have been great if I had been able to spend time inside the manufacturing company.
Also, Kelly Armor of Erie Arts & Culture was a great resource. Her organization’s list of refugee-owned businesses was very useful, and she helped connect me with refugees in the community. Ken Louie, director of the Economics Research Institute of Erie, also helped me gain a better understanding of Erie’s overall economy.